Arts festivals can be truly life-changing. They can also be ripe for mockery, which is what happened to comedian Eugene Mirman and his friends back in 2008. Their good-natured satire, the Eugene Mirman Comedy Festival, surprised them by becoming the real deal, selling out shows and running for a decade. “It Started as a Joke,” a documentary set in the last year of the fest, looks at how it became a beacon for talent, and a place of catharsis for personal tragedy. Jim Gaffigan, Janeane Garofalo, Kumail Nanjiani, John Hodgman, Ira Glass, Mike Birbiglia, Jon Glaser, Kristen Schaal, Bobcat Goldthwait, Michael Showalter, Michael Che and Bridget Everett are among the many names who played the festival, which had its final event in 2018.
Mirman, best known for voicing Gene Belcher on “Bob’s Burgers,” recalls the attractions they set up at Brooklyn’s Bell House. “We had an Awkward Party Bus parked outside one year, with a sign,” he says. “I made a mix to play, fun party-ish music, and a friend of ours, an actress, sat on the bus crying. People would come find me and say, ‘There’s a woman on the bus who seems pretty upset.’ And I would be like, ‘Yeah. That’s pretty awkward, huh?’ ”
Over the years, the event featured a bouncy castle with a therapist inside, a clown who gave tax advice and an “Eye Contact Booth,” a cardboard box in which Mirman would be hidden. Onstage, the festival offered tongue-in-cheek themed nights, like “Yikes! Most of These Comedians Were Born After ‘Police Academy 2’ Was in Theaters!”
Mirman had been performing his off-kilter stand-up around downtown New York since the early 2000s, and the comics he met over the years came to form a group of close friends with diverse performance styles — united by a disregard for traditional stand-up. “So many of the other comics who were going up [onstage] at that time had one goal, and that was to get on television,” says Hodgman. “When you saw Eugene and the people he loves perform, it felt like their goal was just to be in the moment.”
Julie Smith Clem, the film’s co-director and the festival’s producer, says, “It always felt like the spirit of it was positive and inclusive rather than competitive. A lot of why we kept doing the festival, really, was just because it seemed like everyone was having fun.”
Goldthwait puts it more bluntly: “He’s the least star-f–kery guy I know,” he says. “He just appreciates people being original, and people gravitate to him because he’s a sweet guy.”
Fellow comics’ love for Mirman is a theme in “It Started as a Joke,” which takes a heartbreaking turn as it’s revealed that his wife, Katie Westfall-Tharp, a key player in making the festival happen, was diagnosed with breast cancer, which went into remission and then returned; she died in January.
As the couple were dealing with her illness while parenting their young son, Mirman began to try out cancer-themed material, which didn’t always go over smoothly. But in the last year of the festival, it inspired Gaffigan, Glaser and Goldthwait to talk onstage about their own experiences with illness and death, including Goldthwait opening up about his close friendship with the late Robin Williams.
Hodgman thinks the comic-tragic intersection in the film could be useful right now. “I think, given the situation, we could all use a little of the Eugene Mirman Comedy Festival in our lives and minds,” he says. “Obviously, getting together in a packed Bell House isn’t possible, but we’re lucky to have the next best thing.”
“It Started as a Joke” is available on demand and on iTunes today.
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